A pair of new studies indicate the benefits of integrated farming methods, which incorporate sustainable practices beyond foregoing pesticides. First, according to a study by Oxford University scientists, farms that aim for high food production using integrated sustainable practices could be better for the environment than either organic or conventional farms. The scientists found that using integrated techniques such as crop rotation, organic fertilizers, cover crops, and very little pesticide application would use less energy and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit of production than either organic or conventional farms.
“Integrating the needs of food production and wildlife conservation is a major 21st century challenge – humanity needs both, and it’s only by taking account of all the costs and benefits that the best compromises can be found,” said Professor David Macdonald of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), who directed the research.
The study also found that possible alternative uses of land—such as energy crop production, managed forest, and natural forest—should be factored into the comparison of the different farming systems. “If you grow food organically you have to use much more land to grow the same amount of food than you would using other methods, meaning this land cannot be used for something else,” said Dr. Hanna Tuomisto, who led the research at the WildCRU. “Once we factored in the potential alternative land uses, both integrated and conventional farming systems, which produce high volumes of food per acre, began to look much more attractive in terms of overall energy use, emissions, and the impact on biodiversity.”
A second set of agricultural researchers, based at Penn State University, found that integrated farming techniques appear to be the best response to a rise in herbicide-resistant weeds. Since the mid-1990s, agricultural seed companies have been developing and selling seeds that are genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides such as glyphosate (Roundup), as a better way to manage weeds. The use of these herbicides has led to the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds, however.
“Several species have developed amazing biochemical ways to resist the effects of the herbicide,” said J. Franklin Egan, a doctoral student in ecology at Penn State. “If weed problems are addressed just with herbicides, evolution will win.” Weeds make themselves resistant by producing an enzyme that is immune to the herbicide but still maintains cellular function, or by developing a way to move the herbicide away from the affected enzymes, according to Egan.
In response to the rise in herbicide-resistant weeds, companies are developing varieties of seeds that are genetically modified to resist multiple herbicides. This continual altering of genes is not a sustainable solution to the problem, according to the researchers. A “treadmill” response will give rise to strains of weeds that are themselves resistant to multiple herbicides, and could also potentially damage sensitive crops like tomatoes and grapes.
The researchers said that in previous studies, integrated weed management had lowered herbicide use by as much as 94 percent while keeping the farms profitable. According to Egan, integrated weed management is the right way to handle weeds, and is a straightforward and effective means of handling the problem. Beginning farmers may wish to explore these integrated methods as approaches to farming that offer numerous benefits from the standpoint of agroecology and conservation.